The Problem with No

People are smart. We develop extremely complex languages and then use these languages in exceedingly intricate ways. Dogs, on the other hand are not this smart. Although dogs can understand very simple language, best delivered in one or two word phrases such as “sit” and “down,” they don’t understand any of the complexity of language. This brings us to the problem with the word “no.” We can teach dogs a lot of things, but not the word “no.” This is because our use of the word “no” is very complex. What makes it complex is that it has many different meanings that are all tied to the context in which the word is used. Children over the age of 3 or 4 get this concept, however, dogs do not. If it is right before dinner and your child has his hand in the cookie jar and you say “Johnny, no” he will understand that you mean no cookies before dinner. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t understand the complexity of context. The words they understand are simple and communicate the same thing in every situation. Commands like “come,” “sit” and “down” mean the same thing – every time you use them. The word “no” can mean stop jumping one minute, and then stop chewing on the chair 5 minutes later. The dog may stop what she is doing but she is not understanding and following the command. She is responding to your tone of voice. You can replace the word “no” with any other word as long as you say it in the same way, and with the same tone of voice, you will get the same reaction. This is not true with commands like “sit” and “down” because “sit” and “down” have specific meaning for your dog. The way to solve the problem with the word “no” is by eliminating it from your dog-centered vocabulary. Try replacing it with a command your dog does know. If she is jumping, ask her to sit instead and then reward her for sitting. If she is chewing on the chair, offer her a bone or one of her own toys and then tell her what a good dog she is when she makes the switch.